There is a lot of fascinating reading in the new issue of The Collagist, including a long poem by Rose McLarney, whose work you know I adore. Be sure to also look up Laird Hunt's fiction, a new "creative audio" segment, and some fierce nonfiction by Shena McAuliffe.
My contribution is a video review of Best European Fiction 2012, edited by Aleksandar Hemon and with a preface by Nicole Krauss. Thirty-four stories from 26 countries appear here, most in translation. This is the third edition of this dynamic annual anthology (see my review of the 2011 editions here), and it comes after an especially intense year in European politics.
After the jump, you can see a more-or-less transcription of my review.
Best European Fiction 2012 features 34 stories from 26 counties in the third edition of the popular anthology from Dalkey Archive Press and tasteful editor Aleksandar Hemon. Hemon makes plain in his introduction that the anthology comes to us after an unusually fiery year in European news. There was the student uprising in London, the massacre in Norway, the ongoing crisis with the euro. There was the debt debacle in Greece, Occupy protests across the continent, the phone hacking scandal in the UK, and Berlusconi resigning in Italy. It is quite the time to immerse ourselves in the work of contemporary European storytellers.
What’s new this year is that the stories are ordered by theme: love, desire, elsewhere, war, art, music, children, family, home, crisis, work, and evil. What’s not new? The collected fiction embraces both straight-laced realistic tales and stories that are unabashedly weird. Translators are celebrated alongside the authors themselves. Vibrant stories translated from a range of language traditions find ways to converse with one another. The hybridic nature of this anthology gives it a rare dynamism. It is one of the reads I’m coming to most look forward to each year.
Inexplicably, Best European Fiction features a preface by Nicole Krauss, an American author. There is no context or explanation for why Krauss was chosen to introduce this volume to us. Krauss details the influence that writers in translation had on her. “Things would have turned out very differently for me,” she says if the writings of Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Bohumil Hrabal, Joseph Brodsky, Jorge Luis Borges and David Grossman, among others, had not “come down to me at an impressionable age.” While I do think it’s strange to have an American author introducing a collection of European fiction, I appreciate that Krauss elevates the reader’s experience in encountering fiction like this.
But of course the real story is the stories. The fiction in BEF 2012 feels more mixed than the previous two editions, with more middling stories than I expected and few that I was head over heels for. Agustín Fernández Paz of Spain has a strange story narrated by a ghost dog that didn’t do much for me. This dog is not the only animal narrator in the book, nor the only ghost. On the other hand, Croatia’s Maja Hrgović hits hard with the second story in the anthology called "Zlatka," a beautiful and funny story about a woman who falls for her hairdresser. David Dephy from Georgia gives us "Before the End," a slowed-down account of a man before a firing squad. As the bullets near him, he is told by death that in wartime, no one is responsible. War justifies everybody’s death.
Dalkey Archive Press, the publisher of Best European Fiction, says that the thematic ordering of the stories is "to facilitate book club and reading group discussions". Which sounds great to me, but I can’t help but wish that they’d push further in this vein, perhaps by providing added materials about the writers and translators, or a macroscopic picture of the literature emerging out of different linguistic and national traditions. I looked up some of the contributors online, hoping to learn more about them and their work, and – as to be expected, given the stated urgency of the Best European Fiction project – there often was little to be found.
If I were to lengthen my wish list, I’d add that I’d love to have seen Aleksandar Hemon use his introduction to give a more rigorous accounting for what stories he chose, and, especially, what he did not choose. As another reviewer pointed out, Italy is a mysterious absence from the pages. So are Austria and Sweden.
Taking what is on the pages, what I liked best is the black comedy, inventive sentences, and the dramas that grapple with the ferocity of modern life, from terrorist attacks to same-sex love affairs. This is a book to keep on your nightstand and to pick through over many months. And – nerd alert! -- You might even have some fun, like I did, in finding the rhymes between Best European Fiction and the World News section of your newspaper.